illumination

Illumination by Nat Harrington Voyage YA

Finalist in the 2020 Voyage YA Short Story Award

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the first time you kiss him it is—you swear—an accident. you don’t know what comes over you; you’ve just managed to successfully shift only your eyes for the first time and Graham is cheering and you’re so close to him and you lean across the little distance between you and you kiss him. Graham Forsay. Graham Forsay, your arch-rival turned…you’re not sure what you are now.

(what do you call a guy you used to hate, who once fucking bit you while you were fighting and ended up turning you into a werewolf, only to then immediately demonstrate an unexpected capacity for remorse and, like, being surprisingly chill and helpful?

arch-rival doesn’t seem like it quite covers this situation.)

you regret it immediately and say so. “I’m so sorry, I don’t know what I was—I’m sorry.”

Graham is, as always, infuriatingly, chill: “don’t worry about it, Derek; I don’t swing that way, but it’s all good.”

you want to go hide under a rock. what, you think miserably, would Nate say? that thought just makes you even more miserable. you make some weak excuse that Graham graciously accepts and you flee. it’s not even like you find him that attractive.

(later you think: when did you start admitting Graham Forsay is any amount of attractive?)

you barely sleep that night—and isn’t that familiar—and in the morning you text Graham to apologize, again. it was, you decide, a kind of temporary…you’re not sure. something. anyway, the point is, it won’t happen again. you tell yourself this very firmly.

then it does.

the second time you kiss him you don’t know what it is, but it’s not—exactly—an accident.

you’ve been through a lot together—more, though you hate to admit it, than you and Nate, in some ways. you and Nate never fought a redcap, for example, and that turned out to be just the beginning. you stopped prefacing every text conversation with Graham with I still hate you a while ago; you don’t remember when it happened—you didn’t realize it until now.

probably it was at some point before you and Graham started hanging out for not-wolf reasons. you’re sitting—both of you—on your bed, playing video games. you’re close enough that every so often your bodies touch: elbows bumping against arms, the occasional shoulder-bump, once or twice your knees brushing against each other, just for a moment. you haven’t been this close to anyone besides…well, Nate.

you haven’t seen Nate in person in almost a month at this point—just texts (mostly yours, sometimes his) and failures to make your schedules align. all of his texts these days seem to be excuses for not spending time with you. I’m losing my—my best friend, you think, not for the first time.

maybe it’s thinking about Nate—the juxtaposition of the two of them, Graham and Nate, in your mind—that does it. whatever it is, one second you’re looking at each other, laughing at something you can’t remember now—but laughing, that’s what you remember clearly, Graham’s face illuminated by his smile, your legs resting comfortably against each other—and then, once again, you’re leaning across the space between you and then you kiss him, and then, just for a few seconds, he kisses you back; his hand comes to rest, hesitant, on your thigh.

then, as abruptly as it started, it ends. Graham pulls away, stands up, and for one infinite moment you’re sure he’s going to punch you, and you’ll be right back where you started before Graham got you into what you no longer think of as a mess.

“I—have to go,” he says. “I’m sorry.” and before you can say anything he’s gone.

you fall back on your bed and stare up at the ceiling.

you haven’t felt like this since—

Graham texts you later that night: sorry, man, I just can’t. I shouldn’t have done that. sorry if I led you on.

you don’t respond, because what is there to say? just more questions you won’t get answers to.

later he texts again: maybe we should take a break for a few days. give each other some space.

I don’t want space, you want to say. or scream. I want the opposite of space. and then: take a break from what? 

you get a text from Nate, too. yet another non-apology—too much work this week, man. you delete the notification. you can’t deal with Nate right now. it strikes you, suddenly, that now you really have been through more with Graham than with Nate. there was only ever that one time, before.

you break into slightly hysterical laughter at this thought and have to muffle yourself with your pillow so you don’t wake up your parents.

obviously, you tell no-one about any of this. when a friend observes that you seem kind of out of it, you shrug it off and say you haven’t been sleeping well—which is true. later, she asks you something about Graham and you answer more abruptly than you mean to.

“I don’t know; we haven’t talked since Saturday.”

“oh,” she says. she looks at the other friend you’re eating lunch with, and you wonder for the first time if they suspect something. but neither of them says anything, and the conversation moves on.

Friday night Graham texts you again: hey can we talk? 

you spend the rest of the night pacing back and forth in your room, wishing you’d accepted the invitation to that marching band party, knowing if you had you’d be wasted and making terrible decisions and that’s what got you into this mess—and it’s a mess again, no doubt—in the first place.

you manage, finally, to get some sleep. a few hours, tossing and turning in between.

you arranged to meet on Saturday afternoon. you meet in the woods, because why not? you’re werewolves. hell, maybe you should just go full wolf for a while. wolves don’t have this kind of drama, you’re pretty sure.

when you get there—twenty minutes early—Graham is already waiting. he jumps up the second he hears you coming, turns to look at you. you stare at each other for a long moment. fuck, you think, I want to kiss him.

(now that you’ve allowed yourself to admit that this is something you want, you’ve been thinking about it, oh, only every minute of every waking hour of every day since he kissed you back.)

“…hey, Derek,” he says finally.

there are so many things you’d like to say, and you can’t put any of them into words, so instead, you say, “hey.”

“I’m…sorry,” he says, awkwardly. “I shouldn’t have—”

“shouldn’t have done that,” you finish. “yeah, you said that already.”

“it’s not that I don’t like you—as a friend!” he clarifies. “just…not as more than that. okay?”

“oh, bullshit,” you say, surprising yourself with your own boldness. but you already let—you let Nate drift away by holding your tongue, and, fuck, you’re not letting the same thing happen with Graham. “first off, you’re the one who showed me how do the whole werewolf polygraph thing, so the least you could do is have the decency not to lie to me.”

he flushes; apparently he was hoping you wouldn’t notice.

“second off, even if I weren’t a werewolf I still know you well enough that I could tell you’re lying now. and besides, I was there, too, remember? I know what I felt, and I think…” you take a deep breath, “I think I have some idea what you felt, too—besides my thigh, when you put your hand on it while you were fucking kissing me back.”

he opens his mouth to say something but you cut him off.

“can I please just get this all out?”

he closes his mouth again, slowly, and nods.

“sorry, I shouldn’t yell; I know this is hard, believe me! and if you’re scared, or you’re confused, or whatever else, fine, I get it. I’m not going to drag you out of the closet—I just…want you to admit that you felt something, too. I can let it drop, then, if that’s what you really want. I just…can’t deal with any more fucking denial.”

Graham gives you a very, very long look when you finish. apart from the fact that his face is still kind of red, he looks shockingly calm. you take a long breath, trying to settle your own nerves, collect yourself.

“fine,” he says. “yeah, I felt something. there’s always kind of been…something, I think. between us, I mean. from when we first met, even.”

you’re taken aback by this.

“I was trying to be nice, you know,” he continues, “that first time we met when I offered you a hand up in the game. I know I can be an asshole sometimes, but…I don’t know, you caught my eye right away, opposing teams be damned. but first, you told me to fuck off, and then I was a dick to you at that party, and then the next one, and the next one, and…” he trails off. “but we just couldn’t stay away, could we? every time I saw you there was just something that pulled me towards you. I hated you, I thought, but also there was…” he waves his hand vaguely. “something. I didn’t know how to explain it, what to call it.” he sighs. “and then I fucking bit you.”

you want to jump in here, make a joke about how weird that was (what the fuck, Graham!), but you know it’s more important that you let him finish.

“remember,” he goes on, “how you used to start every text to me with ‘I still hate you’?”

“yeah.” you’re a little embarrassed by that now. “sorry about that.”

“I mean,” he says, “you weren’t wrong. I really fucked both of us over that night.” he shakes his head ruefully. “I thought—even with the werewolf thing—I thought my life was under control. everything was…chill, on track, normal, perfect. okay,” he admits, “not perfect, but, like…you know what I mean.”

“I don’t know if I do,” you say, “but I’ll take your word for it.”

“did you know I had a girlfriend until…I bit you?”

you blink. you did not know that. he’s never mentioned her; granted, you don’t talk about Montrose that much, because he knows you hate it—although, now that you think about it, he doesn’t know why you hate his school so much, because you’ve never talked about Nate, either. guess we’ve both been keeping secrets.

“we broke up like a week afterward,” he says. “because I couldn’t stop thinking about you.” he doesn’t look at you—he’s staring at a tree over your left shoulder. “there were other reasons, too, obviously, but you were the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

“Graham…”

“so. yeah,” he says, bitterly. “I felt something. but it’s…” he looks up at the canopy of still mostly bare branches over your heads, then back down at you. “this wasn’t the plan. you weren’t the plan. there are so many reasons I can’t do this. the alpha…”

he trails off, the way he always does when anything touches on the subject of the alpha and the pack. he doesn’t like to talk about it and he always looks so pained when it comes up that you usually let it pass. not now, though.

fuck the alpha,” you say, more boldly than you feel—your heart is racing. “if I don’t need him, you don’t either. we’ll be our own pack, you and me. no alpha, just…us.” your eyes meet. Graham’s eyes are, you observe a little absently, beautiful. “…please?”

“it’s not that easy, Derek,” he says, sighing. “god, I wish it were.”

“why not?” you ask, a little petulantly. “why can’t it be? why can’t we make it that easy? just once, can’t we?”

“you have no idea how much I want the answer to be yes,” he says, looking at you. “I just…” he looks, to your surprise, like he might cry. hesitantly, you take a step towards him. “I want—” you take another step towards him, then another, and then you’re pulling him into a hug and he is crying, sobbing into your shoulder.

when the tears have subsided a bit he sniffs and—still into your shoulder—says, “I’m sorry.”

“hey,” you say, and he lifts his head to look at you. your faces are, once again, so close. “it’s okay.” he looks at you, and then, for the first time, Graham tilts his head slightly, leans in, and kisses you. you close your eyes and let yourself enjoy it because this is probably going to be the last time, you’ll never talk about this again—

Graham pulls away and you open your eyes, and then he says: “okay.”

you blink. “okay?”

“you’re right,” he says. “the alpha can go fuck himself. or, like, we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”

we.”

“yeah,” he says. then he grins, and you grin back. you’re giddy; you feel like you’re floating. “yeah,” he says again. there’s that smile, lighting up his face, illuminating everything around him. including you. “we. us. you and me.”

“okay,” you say. you’re so happy you want to scream, but you restrain yourself. “you and me.”

“you and me,” he says, and kisses you again.

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